Wednesday August 10th, 2011

Sheesh, Jon. Your love affair with Roger Federer is getting downright embarrassing. Have you ever written one mailbag column that didn't include, at minimum, a reference to him and how wonderful you think he is? I challenge you: Go back through your archives and see if you can find one column without a loving reference to Federer. Enough already. He's old news. -- Sharon, Vancouver

• I probably got a dozen of these last week. Maria of Dallas went so far as to diagnose my condition.

I've been thinking a lot about Federer recently, particularly on the occasion of his 30th birthday, particularly while watching, voyeuristically, the unfolding parable that is Tiger Woods. Federer is the most decorated male player in tennis history. After a decade in the public eye -- scrutinized like none of us will ever know; the face of the entire sport -- what's the absolute worst thing you can say about him? At times, he comes off as arrogant? When beaten, he doesn't always heap praise on his conqueror? He's stubborn about his equipment? He's ... um ....I'm stuck. He wears white after Labor Day? Really, what?

Consider other athletes of his stature. Tiger is an obvious and easy comparison. But from Kobe Bryant to Alex Rodriguez to Brett Favre to Michael Vick, we see flawed athletes done in by everything from criminal behavior to hubris. We kill these athletes and celebrities -- just roast them -- when they disappoint us. Well, when they don't, that ought to be acknowledged.

We also need to take stock of Federer "in decline," such as it is. In other sports, athletes can drift downward. The system accommodates diminishing skills. You take a designated hitter spot. You make like Shaquille O'Neal and take a reduced role on a winning team. In tennis, you either win or you lose. Look at Bjorn Borg. He loses his magic, jumps on a plane and isn't heard from again. Federer is no longer the player who routinely wins three majors a year. But he's ranked No. 3, he's still on the caravan, he's still taking his job seriously, downplaying his age, resisting the notion that it's all gravy.

Perfect? No. That No. 15 jacket? The ungracious press conference after losing to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon? We've called him on those accordingly. But those are -- to use a great Australian line -- pimples on the butt of an elephant. It's not a question of Fedophilia or, for that matter, Fedophobia. Consider his body of work in absolute terms. Or look around and see how he's comported himself relative to similarly situated peers in other sports. It's hard to avoid reaching the conclusion that tennis is pretty fortunate to have him around.

Why are Federer's ground strokes so shallow? How could he and his coach not see this and try to fix it? Trying to keep the ball deep is good tennis strategy, isn't it? -- Venki, San Jose, Calif.

• More shallow than a Jay Leno interview? A puddle in New Mexico? The exegesis at the Jersey Shore book club? I'm not sure that the lack of depth on his ground strokes is Federer's biggest concern. But, sure, the deeper the better.

Melanie Oudin loses in the first round of Toronto qualies. Is she done? -- Pam, Amherst, N.Y.

• No. If we've learned anything, it's you don't write off anyone -- even retired players! But there's no question Oudin has gone cold (like, cryogenically frozen cold) lately. This has to be a difficult period for her. It's a cruel lesson in the fickle beast that is fame. You're 17, and you're the darling at the U.S. Open, the special guest of the network morning shows. You have endorsement deals and make the rounds during the exhibition season. Then you're 19 and you're outside the top 100, your ranking falling as if it's on a greased pole. You're losing in qualifying draws and at Challenger events. That has to be a rough adjustment for even the most self-possessed teenager.

You want the unvarnished truth about Oudin? She wasn't as good as people thought she was two years ago. (Credit here to Lindsay Davenport, who took some heat at the time for being insufficiently enthusiastic about Oudin's long-term prospects.) Right now, she's not as bad as people think she is. Body and spirit willing, she could be a top 50 player. Wish her well.

I have asked before if we can finally pull the plug on Donald Young's career. After his performance at Legg Mason (where he reached the semifinals), I am not taking him off light support, but I do feel a pulse. What do you think -- the start of a trend or an aberration? -- Phil O'Donoghue, Florence, Mass.

• Credit where it's due. Now that he's earning spots in draws -- as opposed to being gifted wild cards -- it's having a nice effect on his game. Is he a future Slam winner? Unlikely. Is he a tricky, flashy, Arctic-or-Sahara player who can spring an upset, win some matches and perhaps crack the top 50 (he's ranked 89th now)? Sure. Bear in mind, too: For all the drama and melodrama here, he turned 22 just a few weeks ago. Still time to polish the script here.

Jon, regarding Martina Navratilova's prediction that Federer would own multiple French Open titles if he had a two-handed backhand, she's assuming you can neatly plug in a different stroke and not affect the whole package. Without the one-hander, Roger is a different player. Different tactics, point patterns, movement and most likely a diminished slice. One could argue that he might own fewer French Opens, not more. -- Curtis Sayers, Newton, Mass.

• I was talking to a tennis group recently and encouraged it to read Nadal's press conference transcript following Wimbledon. It's one of the more candid sessions and it spoke to just how intensely mental tennis can be. We get caught up talking about deep ground strokes and high-bouncing lefty topspin to the one-handed backhand and superiority in forehand-to-forehand rallies. But in the end, I think so much of tennis goes on between the ears. James Blake is wired one way. Novak Djokovic is wired another way. And X's and O's, while important, aren't likely to offset those differences. Curtis is ultimately right. Federer with a two-handed backhand makes for a totally differently player. Different philosophy. Different patterns within a point. Different positioning. But more importantly, Federer is Federer.

Does anyone (perhaps Greg Sharko?) have a tally of the Williams sisters withdrawals since turning pro? -- John Gordon, Toronto

• I'd ask Sharko but I worry about a bandwidth issue.

I have little patience for "anti-doping" -- a hypocritical and tyrannical regime that is based more on moral indignation than science, and which wants me to believe that ingesting drugs is bad, but drinking Gatorade or buying the fanciest racket one can find is good because ... drugs are bad! The entire anti-doping house is built on a foundation of silliness, lies and false notions of "purity." Nonetheless, I have to say that I don't understand why you think it matters that Robert Kendrick didn't "intend" to enhance his performance. Anti-doping is a slippery slope. He did intend to mitigate the effects of jet lag, which in itself could be viewed as a performance-enhancing act -- in fact, if this pill actually did help him recover from jet lag, this almost certainly was more beneficial to him than the stimulant effect. I don't think this pill has any effect on athletic performance or anything else. Most illegal performance enhancers are ineffective if not outright countereffective. But that's not the point. The anti-doping overlords believe it's effective, and taking it "on accident" (but totally on purpose) doesn't change anything. And Kendrick's one-year ban for taking something that might actually provide some kind of material benefit seems downright generous in light of Martina Hingis' two-year ban for a substance that could not possibly have improved her play! -- Joshua, Portland

• I don't disagree with much of what you write. But here's a critical distinction with regards to performance enhancement: Does the drug or treatment take you to a baseline level? Or does it take you beyond? If a player gets Lasik to achieve 20/20 vision, is she cheating? Most of us would say no. She's just getting to par. If she gets Lasik to achieve 20/12 vision, we might think differently. In Kendrick's case, he wasn't seeking an advantage. He just wanted to get "un-jet-lagged," same as everyone else. (Obviously this gets trickier with testosterone deficiency and the like.)

You know what Kendrick's problem is? His name is not Andre Agassi. Had it been, the powers that be would've accepted any excuse he may have offered. But I assume poor Kendrick is just another journeyman without a huge entourage paid to tell him what to do. It's awful for him, because even if they overturn the suspension, it may be too late for him. -- Miriam Garcia, Rosario, Argentina

• He should have just pinned it on his reckless assistant, Slim, and presto! The problem would go away. Seriously, you could spin this the other way: Kendrick's suspension is indicative of a no-nonsense policy that has more teeth than a Great White. Barely a decade ago, players could basically talk their way out of trouble. Today, a player takes a legal anti-jet lag medication, furnishes a sample and demonstrates beyond dispute that he did not intend to enhance performance. Yet, the substance was on the banned list. Case closed.

Incidentally, for all the flaws and contradictions of tennis' policy, I give it credit for transparency. I really encourage you to read the details here.

Kendrick's ban is awful. Yes, it is strict liability, but if you want to look at it legally, he has proved it was an honest and reasonable mistake. If he were charged with a crime, he would be acquitted. I don't see the point of sending this kind of message. Is it really going to deter athletes? -- L.T., Sydney, Australia

• I'm not sure lack of intent or ignorance of the law leads to acquittal in too many criminal courts. But I think you need to go back to the purpose of even having an anti-doping policy. Presumably it's to ensure fair competition, to make sure athletes are competing on the level. I can't imagine too many people oppose this; it cuts to the essence of sports. So, sure, come up with a banned list.

We want to punish those who cheat and deter those who might. But go through the records of the players who have been punished (harshly, in the absence of a union) and it's remarkable how many weren't cheating at the time but were simply sloppy. The players alleged that they took anti-hair loss medication, anti-jet lag medicine, mislabeled supplements. In most cases, the independent panel -- and this is significant -- found the explanation to be credible. But because of the strict liability standard, a suspension was handed down.

I am very glad to see that Roger Federer has spoken his mind about the changes to the Canadian Open. Holding the men's and women's tournaments simultaneously in Montreal and Toronto has to be one of the worst ideas ever. I have not heard any criticism from the media, so it is good that at least one credible person is willing to say that the emperor wears no clothes. -- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa, Ontario

• I think a lot of people arched their eyebrows when this plan was announced. To refresh: Instead of holding the men's and women's Rogers Cups in successive weeks, they're now being held simultaneously, one in Montreal and one in Toronto. The idea is that television can hop back and forth between Quebec and Ontario. In a doth-protest-too-much kind of way, the tours were a bit too defensive in selling this plan. I'm sure it went something like this: "It will sound chaotic, but two markets are being served simultaneously! And our TV partners love it!"

As I understand it, this was incredibly political, and Tennis Canada didn't have much of a choice. Chalk this up to "making the best of a bad situation." Like you, I'm skeptical. But let's reserve judgment until we see how it plays out.

Michael Chang is miffed at Agassi's book, yet he didn't even read it. I just think he looks really silly commenting about the book and then admitting that he only read excerpts. Excerpts can be taken out of context and you really need to read the whole book before you comment. -- Bob Romero, Monee, Ill.

• I'm not sure Chang's opinion would change. But, yes, this is a good rule of thumb: You give up the high ground when you challenge a book without having read it.

We've been to the U.S. Open three years running now (first-week day sessions). We drive up from Pennsylvania and have been pleasantly surprised by no issues with parking or traffic. In terms of sunscreen, be sure to warn your sunglassed listeners about raccoon eyes! Sitting in the same position under the sun for a three-hour match with sunglasses on will make you the butt of many jokes the next day! -- Bob Smith, Philadelphia

• Yes, beware of raccoon eyes! The traffic is unpredictable, which is part of what makes it maddening. I've blown back to Manhattan in 15 minutes on Labor Day evening -- when you'd think the world would be coming home from the Hamptons. I've been stuck in a six-mile Long Island Expressway parking lot in the middle of the day. Why risk it? Just take the train. Better for the environment and all anyway.

I'm going to my first live tournament, in Cincinnati for the semis. What are the "must-dos" and "don't-dos" at a tournament? And how can I increase my chances of meeting and taking a picture with one of the players? -- Joe, Chicago

• I'll link the Cincy tips again.

But the venue has been upgraded this year so bear that in mind. As usual, head to the practice courts. Try the five-way chili; it's both indefensible and undeniably tasty at the same time. If you take a day off and go to Kings Island amusement park -- I haven't been since the 1980s but remember it fondly -- keep an eye out for players. I'm uneasy revealing the location, but ask around and you'll quickly learn the name and location of the players' hotel. It's a good place to get autographs and photos and catch various French players smoking in the parking lot.

Regarding your answer to the question about Federer not watching finals he isn't in, you used Kobe Bryant as an example. In an interview with ESPN this week, he said he indeed watched the Heat-Mavs. I guess it is different for different guys? -- Russell, Houston

• Thanks, a few of you noted that. Who knew? I still think it's entirely reasonable when an athlete eliminated in an event declines to watch the conclusion. It probably feels a bit like going to your ex-girlfriend's wedding.

I'm doing a video project for my dad's 50th birthday. Do you know of any famous (or just plain funny) jokes related to tennis? -- Peter, Connecticut

• On-court coaching? The "Bet-at-home.com Open"? Maybe too obscure. I would avoid anything having to do with the word "love." That's pretty played out. What about this line from the late, great Mitch Hedberg? "I think Pringles' initial intention was to make tennis balls. But on the day that the rubber was supposed to show up, a big truck load of potatoes arrived. But Pringles was a laid-back company. They said, "F--k it. Cut 'em up."

• Another reminder that the irrepressible Andrea Petkovic has kindly agreed to take question from you guys in an upcoming Mailbag. Send 'em here. Keep 'em clean.

• Eddie Chang of Columbia, Md., has this week's anti-grunting screed: "Many times, the people who grunt will grunt AFTER they have struck the ball. While I may not be a professional tennis player, whenever I grunt as a result of an effort, it's typically during the effort, not afterward (for instance, I don't lift something heavy off the ground and then grunt when I'm standing up). Maria Sharapova comes to mind for such late grunting -- she's even started her grunt when the ball is right over the net. Not sure if it's noteworthy, but thought that I'd point it out."

• Reader Skip Schwarzman, on the grunting issue: "Enough is enough already. When British automotive magazine CAR runs a subtitle to an article like this one: 'Aston's new V8 Vantage meets its evil twin, the ballistic R-S edition of Jaguar's facelifted XK. Brutal bodykits and more grunt than Wimbledon fortnight -- the British muscle car championships starts here,' it's time for tennis to address the decibel issue."

• Is it me, or is this cartoon wildly inappropriate, or perhaps just bizarrely tone-deaf? How does this even come to be? You run a highly controversial anti-doping program, an inherently no-nonsense issue. Players' careers hang in the balance. You convey gravitas by ... adorning the web page with a cartoon of a Jay Leno-looking recreational player conferring with a doctor who could not appear to be more out of touch?

Only in tennis, friends. Only in tennis.

Chris Evert, candid as ever.

• There's sometimes a fine line between public service and free advertising -- and we need to go to the Hawk-eye here. But times are tough. That being the case, there is a U.S. Open package available at the Sanctuary Hotel in New York. Starting at $499 for two nights ($250 a night). Here's more info.

• The USTA announced the 20-player field for the U.S. Open wheelchair competition.

Take that, Ryan Harrison! (Love the quotes here.)

• David of Dallas: "I have a suspicion that Mary Carillo would call it 'Big Boy Tennis' rather than 'Big Dude Tennis.' She appears to be a fan of alliteration."

• Reader Brenda Hayes has written a song, Super Serena, that she's asked me (most emphatically) to share.

• Sriram of Chennai, India: "I was watching this interview with John McEnroe recorded in 2000. McEnroe says that the problem with tennis is that the serve is too big and there aren't any rallies. Aha. Eleven years down the road, we hear complaints that there are too many rallies and no serve-and-volley players any longer. But the moral is, be careful what you wish for, for you know not what you get."

• The New Haven Open (Aug. 18-27 at Yale) has launched a breast cancer initiative.

• Steven Gary of Perth, Australia, among others, passed on this Wayne Odesnik link.

• Debbie Morris of Ottawa, Ontario, with a nice find: "Future star watch: Canada's Francoise Abanda. Ranked at No. 42, she's the youngest player in the top 100 on the ITF world junior rankings at just 14. She will be the youngest player in the main draw of the Junior U.S. Open."

• Dai Tran of Fairfax, Va., finds these long-lost siblings: Andy Murray and future Spiderman Andrew Garfield.

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